TAMPA — They have the same number of wins as they finished last season with, the same small collection of three Big East victories.
And yet as the Bulls close their first season under Stan Heath tonight against Notre Dame in the Sun Dome, USF's improved play in the past month has given the coach renewed optimism about next season and the progress of his team.
"The way we've played has been very encouraging," Heath said. "We got so much closer at the end of the year. We got better, really had some great Big East basketball games. It lets me know we are there. We're very competitive. We're not out of our league right now."
After losing 10 straight league games, the resurgence started with a home win against Syracuse on Feb. 13. The Bulls followed with three close losses — by one in overtime to Connecticut, by one at Cincinnati and by four to Seton Hall — followed by the program's first Big East road win, at last-place Rutgers.
"We could have easily won all those games," Heath said. "The UConn game, even though we lost, solidified that, 'You know what, these guys are for real. They can play with people.' "
It has been a season of ups and downs for USF, which got significant nonconference wins against Florida State and UAB, who could both make the NCAA Tournament. During the 10-game losing streak, the Bulls struggled to find scoring help beyond their two stars, senior center Kentrell Gransberry and freshman guard Dominique Jones.
Gransberry was a known commodity entering the season and has averaged a double double for the second year in a row. Jones has been phenomenal, setting USF's freshman scoring record, and has a chance to be Big East rookie of the year. The key in the past month has been finding them a supporting cast.
"We're playing a lot harder as a group," point guard Chris Howard said. "Big-name teams are coming in here, and we're giving them a fight. We may not have always grabbed a win, but we played them hard."
The recent surge coincided with improved play from junior guard Jesus Verdejo, who became a consistent double-digit scorer, perimeter threat and another leader on the court. Another junior, B.J. Ajayi, has stepped up at power forward, taking rebounding pressure off Gransberry.
"He's gone from barely on the map to having some very good games," Heath, 43, said. "Down the stretch, he's given us a physical presence that's really helped us on defense and with rebounding."
There have been signs of progress this season, as in attendance, where home crowds are up about 26 percent from last season, averaging 4,926 fans. Only one Big East loss has been by more than 17 points; there were five of those last season.
Take Jones and Verdejo, add in guard Mike Mercer, a midyear transfer from Georgia, and the Bulls have a strong perimeter nucleus next season, including Howard, a two-year starter at point guard. This year's team is on pace to have 80 fewer turnovers than last year's.
The challenge for Heath in the offseason is to find post players to help offset the loss of Gransberry. Gransberry, for one, sees potential in the team he'll leave behind.
"We know what it takes to win, and we know we can play with anybody," Gransberry said. "We're going to win more games, and one of these upcoming years, we're going to win the league, be one of the powers in the league. People take for granted jumping into a big league like this, how tough it is coming in. We're going to make progress."